In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sheep are amazing creatures. Now, I’m sure as a Welshman, you would expect me to say that the Welsh and sheep have a long affinity with one another; and to play up to that stereotype I used to look after sheep. When I was 13 and 14, I used to go andwork in the spring on my cousin’s farm on the Hafod on the side of the mountain. And I couldn’t go very much in the spring because I was in school, so I never really got to see the lambs. But by the time the summer holidays had come around and I was more available, then I had a certain job with the lambs that involved elastic bands and the poor lambs having bits taken off them.
But I knew sheep and I got to spend a lot of time with them. And by the end of the summer holidays, I would smell of sheep. It was very clear what I’d spent my summers doing. And by the end of the summer, the sheep knew me. They knew because I smelt of them when I walked into the barn that they were fine.
They knew the sound of my voice, they knew the way that I walked. So when I first started in that farm at the start of the summer, they would skit away from me. They would try to be as far away from me as possible. They would run away. But by the end of the summer, because they knew, although I was messing around with elastic bands and bits that were dangling off them, they knew that they were going to get food.
And me being a big old softie, they also knew they were going to get lots of cuddles. So by the end of the summer, they knew me very well and they would run and greet me.
Now, Jesus uses the image of a shepherd and of sheep a lot and he uses it because it is written through scripture large, the scripture that Jesus knew in the Old Testament, as we call it, you hear the image of the shepherd and of sheep so often. And part of the reason for that is because Judea and Galilee, in the area where Jesus was preaching, teaching and living, sheep were ideal animals. And often you would have mixed herds of sheep and of goats.
And indeed, pastor is the Latin word for shepherd. Our roots go all the way back to those shepherds on the sides of those mountains. Now, in the Holy Land, when you are a shepherd and when you’re looking after sheep, unlike in the west, you’re looking after the sheep for their wool, not for their meat. And so you get to know the sheep over a very long period of time. I’m sure you’ll remember when I last preached on this part of John and the shepherd, I told you that the crook, the crook that the shepherd carries isn’t a weapon, and whilst it is there to rescue sheep and pull them in line, it is predominantly there for the shepherd to lean on, to rest on when he stood in the field, when he first comes into a flock, so that the sheep can come up to him and learn what he smells like and learn who he is. And that can take three or four days.
So being a shepherd in the Holy Land is no easy task. It’s very different to the way that we understand looking Easter sheep. If you’re a shepherd in the Middle East and it’s still the same today, life is very, very hard.
There’s no time off, there’s no rest, there are no walls or fences. During the day, the sheep are constantly wandering off, because as much as I love sheep, I do have to say they can be incredibly stupid animals and will happily drop themselves over the edge of a cliff or get their heads stuck in something. He’s also there to make sure that the sheep do not get attacked, attacked by wolves and attacked by robbers. So the shepherd in the Middle East is a job that never gives up. It is a job of protection, it is a job of care and it is a job of love.
And so it’s not something that you take up lightly as a job. You cannot be a shepherd in the Middle East unless you do it to 100% of your ability, because unless you give it everything that you are, you are going to lose sheep. They are going to walk off the edge of a cliff, they are going to get themselves stuck in a ravine, or a wolf will come and devour the flock. And so the shepherd is committed. All of who he is is invested in that role of being a shepherd.
But doesn’t just do it on his own. He’s got certain tools. He’s got the crook for leaning on and he’s also got it there for protection and for rescue. Importantly, he never used a crook to beat off animals. He had a proper little cludgel for doing that.
That’s not what the crook was for. But as well as being something to rest on and to guide the sheep, the crook was also used in the evenings. So in the evening in the Middle East, you bring your flock together and when you’re out in the mountains, you put them into a sheepfold. That’s often just an area with a low stone wall that will keep out the wolves. And there is a sheep gate, and through the gate the sheep go into the sheepfold and the shepherd will sleep in that entrance.
This is what Jesus is talking about in this gospel. And when he was preaching that to the people around him, people understood exactly what he meant. Ah, Jesus is in the gate, he is protecting the flock. People would have understand that as they get to the sheepfold in the evening, the shepherd takes his crook and he puts it across the entrance into the sheepfold to slow the sheep down. So that one sheep goes in at a time and it goes under the crook and it allows the shepherd to check that the sheep is healthy and is safe and hasn’t caught any injuries in the day.
So Jesus is checking us as we come in to the sheepfold, as we pass through that gate under his crook to be checked. And then the shepherd will sleep in the gateway protecting his flock. And let me tell you, nothing gets past that shepherd. And the sheep know. They learn that they are safe and they can hear the sounds of their shepherd.
They can hear his breathing. And just like those sheep knew that it was me coming into the barn, they knew who it was at the gate, we too see that in Jesus. Over time, we get to learn how Jesus acts in our lives and we should pay attention to how he acts in our lives, so that we too can take that comfort of being safe in the sheepfold. But we, just like the sheep in the sheepfold in the Middle East, are difficult to look after.
Let me tell you a story about Moses. It’s one of my favourite stories and I tend to tell it to young men when I’m preaching in schools. And it is the legend of Moses when he was a shepherd, when he went off after the burning bush and he was looking after the sheep in the wilderness away from home. And the legend goes that he was looking after the sheep and one of the kids ran away. And Moses was really irritated by this kid that had run away.
He was quite upset and angry about it and he went chasing after it. For goodness sake, haven’t I got enough to be doing without chasing after this stupid goat? And when he catches up with a goat, when he catches up with this kid, it’s at the water drinking. And Moses says, Ah, you ran away because you were thirsty. And he picks the kid up and he carries the kid back to the flock.
That is how Jesus is with us as a good shepherd. We might do something wrong, but Jesus can see why we’ve walked down that path and he will pick us up and bring us back to the flock. It speaks to the character of a person, how we react when we discover those things. One of the ways that we see it in the gospel and we hear that notion of a shepherd knows his flock and the flock knows him.
So another little example of how those things work together in the Middle East. If the weather comes in and it’s raining and the shepherds will all head into a cave and you might have three or four different flocks in that cave all mixed up together. Now, here in the west, if that were to happen, we’d have to take each sheep out, look at its ID number, get the bit of paper and go, oh, that’s Mr. Jones. Look at the next sheep and go, look at the number and go, oh, that’s Mr. Evans.
And then look at the next one and go through all of the farmers and separate them out like that. But in the Middle East, the shepherds can just stand outside the cave and call their sheep. And the sheep know them so well that they will come running to their shepherd.
Shepherd and flock together, trusting each other, knowing each other over a long period of time. It is a relationship that takes time to develop. Jesus knows us, and he has known us since we were knitted together in our mother’s womb. We must trust him. We must come into his fold for protection and know that he will carry us when we run off.
Now, that’s not just Jesus who has that responsibility, but all of us have that responsibility. All of us are shepherds to our own flocks. It is very easy to abrogate, to get rid of our responsibility as a shepherd and say, ah, Jesus is our shepherd. I give everything to Jesus. Brilliant.
It’s a good start. Or to say, Father Matthew is my shepherd. I don’t have to worry about telling people about Jesus or Father Josiah is my shepherd. I do not need to worry about caring for people. That is the shepherd’s job.
But that is not true and that is not what Jesus teaches us. We are all shepherds to our own flocks, our families, our friends, people that we see at the bus stop regularly, we are shepherds to those people. And through imitating Jesus, through being the shepherd, and hopefully through imitating Father Josiah and I as shepherds, hopefully we are providing you the example of how to be a shepherd to your own flocks. And then it is up to you to bring your flock into the sheepfold here at St. Anslem’s, we are the sheepfold here in church together on a Sunday, we have come through the door and we are protected and cared for and are fed, and we will receive what we need to be sent out into the world.
People enter this sheetfold under the crook of Jesus. When we enter, he cheques us to make sure that we are okay, that we haven’t picked up any injuries that week, and we can come to Him for healing our flock. I am very happy to say here at St. Anselm is growing as we bring more and more people into Jesus care and protection.
More people in Hayes know the love and protection of Jesus in this sheephold because each and one of us cares for our own small flock and then brings that flock into the safety of this place. And the more that that flock grows, the more people we bring to Jesus, the stronger we are and the better able we are to defeat attackers the stronger the flock, the stronger each and every one of us is, the better able we are to reject evil in the world. The bigger we are and the stronger we are, the more people we are able to bring into the sheep fault. Jesus is the good shepherd and so are you.
Bring your sheep here, find the lost kid and carry them into the sheepfold where they may know the love and care of God. Amen.